Urban Mobility: How technology will keep us moving in congested cities

Home Technologist 08 Urban Mobility: How technology will keep us moving in congested cities

Half of the world’s 7 billion people now live in urban areas, and every year that number grows by 60 million – the equivalent of seven Londons. Most of the growth is taking place in developing countries, as Europe and North America have stabilised at urban levels of around 80 per cent of the total population. Relatively privileged compared to the Tokyos, Shanghais and Mexico Citys of today’s world, many European cities nonetheless suffer from increasingly paralysing congestion, pollution and other assaults on the quality of life. What to do?  Technologist.eu features some of the most advanced ideas coming out of European universities, labs and the private sector – ideas that if implemented will ensure that the world’s cities are still liveable in the year 2050, when the urban population will exceed 6 billion.

Urban mobility technologist

Editorial: Is Europe too timid?

Researchers and entrepreneurs are full of bright ideas for how to make our cities more fluid, but they won’t do much good unless decision-makers show more vision and courage.
T8_EN_cover_mirror-multipleDossier

Contrary to their counterparts in many developing nations, European urbanites have it good. The massive influx from the countryside is history, having occurred mostly in the 19th and 20th centuries, and as a result European infrastructures are not struggling to keep up with population growth. London and Paris may have their traffic problems, but they are not Mexico City or Jakarta or Cairo.

Even so, there is hardly a country in Europe in which urban mobility does not pose a major challenge in the 21st century. Traffic congestion, even if it is not at São Paulo levels, represents a huge waste of time and therefore money for European economies. Air pollution, despite the much-vaunted automotive Euro standards, continues to make people ill and in some cases kill them. Not to mention the stress induced by noise, crowding and the constant uncertainty as to whether you’ll reach your destination on time.

As our cover story in this issue of Technologist illustrates, European planners and researchers – in both the public and private sectors – are working on highly creative concepts that should make it easier to move around our cities in the decades ahead. Not surprisingly, much of the innovation rests on the Internet and smart apps – such as driverless buses or traffic lights programmed to keep trucks from obstructing the overall flow. Electric power will also be a major factor as bicycles, motorbikes, autos and buses become green.

“It’s about Europe’s reputation as an innovator and problem-solver, as the corner of the world that places the highest value on the wellbeing of its citizens”

These innovations are nice to have in the lab, but they will be even nicer on our streets. That’s where politicians and other decision-makers come into the picture. Yes, Paris has its Vélib bike-sharing program (imitated by numerous cities) and London has its Congestion Charge (not imitated by numerous cities). But which political leaders are promoting the next generation of ideas? Which powerful lobbies are fighting for safe, dedicated bicycle lanes (far from motor traffic); for widespread availability of electric charging stations; for major improvements in public transportation?

This is not only a matter of Europe’s quality of life, although it is definitely about that. It’s also about Europe’s reputation as an innovator, as a problem-solver, as the corner of the world that places the highest value on the wellbeing of its citizens. Unless something changes, European cities in 2030 risk looking much like European cities in 2016 – despite all the good ideas churning out of university labs and dynamic start-ups.

By Henry Muller, Editor


Electrifying transportation

Petrol power helped shape the 20th century, but its decline may define the 21st. So how will the future of urban transport look?

“Peak car”. This phrase, with its echoes of peak oil and peak gas, came to prominence in 2015, and it describes the moment at which per capita car sales level out or start declining. Surprisingly, a number of countries including France, the UK and Sweden may have already reached this point. As urban populations continue to swell, cars have become a victim of their own ubiquity, creating clogged roads and pollution hotspots. Consequently, younger generations seem less keen on car ownership and more interested in cheaper, sustainable alternatives. For most people, that means electric power.

In future cities, the range of transport options will likely flourish, but where the goal is simply to move large groups of people efficiently, electric buses offer a logical solution. Managing large fleets of these buses requires quick charging, though, and that’s a challenge for batteries designed to power 5 to 10-tonne vehicles.

One solution is the TOSA system developed by automation giant ABB. Like many great innovators, the team did not look for a smarter solution, they asked a smarter question:

►“What if you powered buses to reach the next stop rather than the terminus?”

Success in Geneva

Eschewing overhead cables, these buses power up at specific stops in just 15 seconds. “A robotic arm on the roof zips out automatically and connects to a charging port, storing the energy needed to reach the next recharging station,” explains Simone Amorosi, deputy director of the Transportation Centre at the École Polytechnique Fédérale de Lausanne (EPFL). After a successful pilot run in Geneva, EPFL Professor Michel Bierlaire and his collaborators are currently working on myTOSA, a complementary project that will determine the least expensive configuration for TOSA within a given network. This is a vital step for uptake in other cities. So far, so sensible. But if you’re thinking electric vehicles might bring about the death of excitement in transport, you’d be wrong.

Reverse engineering

Step forward T0RR, an electric superbike under development by students at the Technical University of Munich (TUM) and China’s Tsinghua University. When finished, the bike will reach a dizzying top speed of 250 km/h.

bike TUM

Photo: Uli Benz / TUM

T0RR is still in the construction phase, but it boasts notable innovations, including an ingenious reverse rotating electric motor. When cornering, the bike is stabilised by the mass of its wheels turning in one direction. The greater the rotating mass, the more stable the bike. But this stability makes leaning in and out of corners physically difficult. “Simulations showed that the angular momentum of the motor and of the two wheels are exactly the same at a specific rpm,” explains Fabian Ebert from the development team. “We realised that reversing the engine’s rotation would improve manoeuvrability at the beginning and end of turns.” This move, in tandem with the bike’s ability to instantly discharge its battery power, has left the team confident that the bike will beat most petrol-powered rivals in the speed stakes.

The transformer

Some R&D projects are thinking even more radically. The eSeater, a three-wheeled electric car developed by TUM in cooperation with Croatian car manufacturer Rimac Automobili, is harnessing the convergence of transport technologies to rethink modern transportation altogether.

The vehicle’s futuristic looks wouldn’t be out of place in Minority Report, but there’s as much function as form in the folding chassis of this concept car. With the vehicle’s rear wheel folded, the pod sits tall and upright, allowing easy access for users. Once the vehicle is moving, however, it transforms. “The rear wheel unfolds and the eSeater lies flat during driving to reduce air resistance,” explains Gernot Spiegelberg, the project’s leader. “This is the main factor governing the range of travel for electrical cars – not the weight.”

At the project’s core is a desire to anticipate the shifting needs of future populations. The eSeater is particularly well-tailored to serve an ageing population; tasks like parking and charging can be automated, and the intuitive navigation stick and artificial intelligence-enabled control console keep mental and physical exertion to a minimum. As part of a fleet, the eSeater could also tap into growing demand from younger travellers for “always-on” shareable transport services.

Sharing and vending

Ease of access to shared transport will be the key to keeping people moving around megacities. Consequently, electric bike and scooter availability is already growing rapidly. Shareable e-bikes are now available citywide in Madrid thanks to the BiciMAD initiative, and Israeli-based start-up Roadix is so confident in the rising popularity of electric mobility that it is currently working on roadside vending machines to dispense their MUVe electric scooters. Add these to the examples above and the mix of transport types in future cities looks pretty exciting.

Indeed, with infrastructure moving just as rapidly as vehicle R&D, electric vehicles may even be charged by smart lamp posts in the near future. In conjunction with cleaner, quieter transport, such a move really would help cast city streets in a new light.

By Ben McCluskey


 

Driving without a driver

Browse any online technology news website, catch a newscast or even read a newspaper and you could be forgiven for thinking that self-driving cars are about to appear in a showroom near you. With Google’s experimental cars having driven hundreds of thousands of kilometres on bright, broad California boulevards, and car makers like Tesla gradually automating their expensive executive vehicles, we’re told it won’t be long before drivers will be able to sleep in their cars, read books, or watch movies – while smart software does all the work.

Driverless car switzerland

Photo: Olivier Maire

Driverless SwissMeanwhile, experts warn that the driverless propaganda is getting way, way ahead of reality: there are yawning gaps in the capabilities of self-driving vehicles that mean carmakers are a long way from being close to offering a trouble-free, safe ride. “The media and other commentators feel we are further along than we really are,” says John Leonard, an engineer who studies the mapping, localisation and navigation of autonomous vehicles at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology (MIT). “I do feel the technology is being over hyped.”

He is far from alone in believing that. While the likes of Google may argue that few accidents have occured to date in their tests, all the geek hype in the world is nowhere near convincing the organisations that need to back novel automotive technologies with their own cold, hard cash. Those organisations? Insurance companies.

“There are thousands of random little situations and unforeseen conditions that self-driving cars will have to be programmed to cope with before they can be launched,” warns Matthew Avery, research head at Thatcham Research, the European motor insurance industry’s technology analysis centre in Newbury, UK.

“As a result, we do not think driverless cars can be expected to arrive until 2025.”

Those situations range from getting software to mimic the arcane intricacies of human road etiquette, to coping with low-sun obscuring traffic lights, to snow or truck spray concealing lane markings – or simply having the computer break the law to save human life. On top of this, there are also major ethical questions about the priorities of a self-driving car’s software: should it be to protect occupant’s lives at all costs? Or those of pedestrians? The answers have vast implications and are nowhere near being solved.

 

Piecemeal automation

All this means that the first driverless systems we will see – and pretty soon – will be simple, slow-moving multi-passenger electric “pods” plying well-mapped public transport routes. In Sion, Switzerland, and in Milton Keynes, UK, such services are due to kick off in 2016. The Swiss system will use a fleet of eight-seat vehicles intelligently choreographed by swarm-control software developed by BestMile, a spinoff of the École Polytechnique Fédérale de Lausanne (EPFL).

“One vehicle is smart, but a fleet of vehicles is stupid,”

explains BestMile founder and CEO Raphaël Gindrat. “Our platform lets people operate a fleet of vehicles in a smart and efficient way, optimising the schedule, traffic, demand and charging strategy – all in real-time.”

This eminently sensible, slow start to the driverless era does not mean fully self-driving cars are not needed: once perfected they could help seriously reduce the jaw-dropping toll of 1.2 million road deaths worldwide per year – that’s nearly 3,300 killed per day.

The potential for new technology to make a difference is already evident as piecemeal car automation has already begun to reduce casualty figures. Over the last decade, says Avery, Electronic Stability Control (ESC), an automatic anti-skid technology, has reduced the toll of people killed and injured in loss-of-control accidents by 25 per cent per year in the U.S. and the UK. And Autonomous Emergency Braking (AEB), which senses a stopped vehicle or a pedestrian in front of a car, has reduced crash rates overall by 10 per cent and crashes involving casualties by around 30 per cent. The VW Golf Mk7 is the star car here, says Avery: recent models are involved in 42 per cent fewer crashes since AEB arrived.

The introduction of such technologies is paving the way for the driverless car by providing the sensors and automatic actuators that are its building blocks – variously adding wheel-motion sensors, laser radars, microwave radars, ultrasound sensors, cameras and automatic braking and steering servos. These have led to a gradual increase in automatic operation, moving from the assisted automation of AEB and ESC, to more active, partially automated systems like those that keep a car in its lane, rather than just annoyingly warning of lane departure. After that come automatic parking and traffic-jam assist systems from the like of Ford, Volvo and Mercedes, which brake and steer in slow-moving traffic. And a notch above all this in terms of automation power are the auto-driving systems that steer for you on straight autobahn or motorway runs, like Daimler’s nascent Highway Pilot for trucks, and Tesla’s recently launched Autopilot. But the driver must still monitor the controls with both these systems.

The next level is full automation. “That will be the Google car in 2025 – with no steering wheel, no controls at all”, says Avery. The arrival is years away because of the sheer number of problems that need solving. MIT’s Leonard has been driving the streets of Boston video-recording road situations that are likely to confuse a self-driving car. For example, imagine simply turning left (or right in the UK) into a constant stream of traffic that will not allow your car in. As a human at the wheel you can gently nose your car out, make eye contact with another driver and “hope somebody shows mercy,” says Leonard. “That’s a human interaction problem and I don’t see how the computer-vision folks are going to solve that in a self-driving car.”

Double trouble

In another situation, Leonard approaches a traffic light with the sun low behind it so that lights are obscured by glare. But what is not immediately obvious is that there is a traffic cop below the lights – and he is also obscured by glare. The lights have failed and the officer is trying to direct the traffic by hand – a double problem for a driverless computer to interpret. Or a traffic cop steps out into the road and halts traffic just as the lights turn green: what does the robot car do?

Meanwhile lane markings are crucial to some types of driverless navigation – yet Leonard shows easily how one day a Boston bridge was well marked, yet the next day the lane markings had gone as the bridge deck had been repaved. And on still another day the lines were back but obscured by snow.

The answer is to map the world very precisely, as Google does, to allow the car’s position to be localised. But what if unexpected objects – traffic cones say – are hidden by snow? Lidar (laser radar) may someday solve that problem, but in the meantime the number of problem permutations is a major stumbling block.

But it will be worth the candle, says Avery. “As soon as people get used to driving highly automated vehicles they will really want to move to driverless operation. It will be a gradual move, but uptake will be high because it will be so liberating.”

Ethical dilemmas

Will a car programmed to obey the laws of the road drive up on the pavement to allow an ambulance to pass? It’s against the law, though it’s what any sane human would do.

What about the choice between running over a child and sacrificing a car’s own occupants to avoid an oncoming lorry? A driver often has no time to think in an emergency, but there will always be a thought process behind a computer’s decision. Such ethical issues have been probed in depth by Jean-François Bonnefon at the Toulouse School of

Economics in France. “These moral algorithms will need to accomplish three potentially incompatible objectives: being consistent, not causing public outrage, and not discouraging buyers,” he says.

At the root of the problem is a very simple fact: a completely driverless car is a robot – one that people sit inside. And if there is one thing roboticists can agree on, it’s that it is devilishly hard to get a robot to do anything for very long in a safe, consistent way. So conquering the issues will take time.

By Paul Marks @PaulMarks12

Further readings: When slower is faster, MIT // Self-driving cars: dots on the horizon – for now, technologist.eu


 

Unclogging saturated cities

It can be difficult to effect behavioural change in large cities, but Stockholm and London have shown that a well-conceived nudge will deliver results.

Charging cars

Stockholm’s congestion charge was first trialled on 3 January 2006, but with hindsight Halloween would have been more apt. As in an act of sorcery, the queues of motorists typically found on the city centre’s main access routes disappeared overnight. Traffic decreased by around 20 per cent– 5 per cent above the target – allowing the remaining road users to move with newfound ease.

Nor did Stockholm’s vanished vehicles return in the following weeks and months. Intrigued by the scheme’s success, Jonas Eliasson and his research team at KTH Royal Institute of Technology set about tracking down motorists who had changed their routine, but with little success; it transpired that no one thought they were behaving differently. “Travel patterns are far less stable than you might think,” Eliasson points out. “Each day people make new decisions. People’s lives change and so does the world around them, and these factors can nudge decision-making away from rush-hour driving in ways people don’t even notice.”

With the transport landscape changing rapidly, how does Eliasson envision the future? “A rise in shared vehicles might address issues with parking, but that won’t solve the basic lack of space in an urban transport system. Congestion pricing must remain a necessary tool in the urban transport planner’s toolbox,” he says. “As more data are gathered and drivers become accustomed to pricing, charging a higher price in morning hours, or for certain routes or vehicles, may prove more effective.” London runs one of the largest congestion-charge systems worldwide, so is the story significantly different there? “The charge reduced private vehicle use by 20-25 per cent, which is the equivalent of 60,000-70,000 cars per day,” says Philipp Rode of the LSE Cities project, suggesting a similarly positive impact.

Despite the reduction in vehicles, traffic speed has continued to shrink over the past decade, particularly in central London. However, Rode points out that many other factors are at play: “The decline in car numbers has allowed the redistribution of public space away from cars to bus and bike lanes, as well as pedestrian areas,” he explains.

“The results include safer environments, better access to amenities and a broader range of activities conducted in public space.”

Rode’s point is telling. Ultimately these charges are not aimed at helping car drivers navigate less crowded roads; they are a smart way to create more equitable, liveable cities. Rode is confident that broader progress can be made with more daring public policies. “The ubiquity of smartphones has made expensive cameras and infrastructure unnecessary, so I wouldn’t be surprised if we soon see a road-pricing revolution based on app technology.” The evidence suggests that positive public opinion and open, shareable data will lie at the heart of successful future systems.

By Ben McCluskey @FreelanceSciWri


 

Bikes are back

Cycling is healthy, convenient and good for the environment – so no wonder bicycle use in some European cities has doubled since the early 2000s. But there is still much to do to make cycling safer and more attractive.

Isabelle Lessens

Photo: Martin Colombet

BIke ParisBetween urban growth, high petrol prices and traffic congestion, “the bicycle is the best way to get around cities,” says Professor Gebhard Wulfhorst, expert in urban transport planning at the Technical University of Munich. “Distance is a factor, but in cities cycling is at least as fast as public transport.” Not to mention autos. According to a study by the International Cycling Union, the average speed of a car in Mexico City is 4 km/h.

Germany and the Netherlands have always had a firmly rooted bicycle culture. In countries like France, on the other hand, cycling is making a comeback after several decades of decline. The number of bike lanes continues to grow, and urban bicycle sales have risen to more than 300,000 a year. “Bike use is increasing even in the U.S., where it has been slow to catch on,” notes Thomas Alexander Sick Nielsen, a transport policy researcher at the Technical University of Denmark.

New bikes, new uses

A number of innovations have helped bring about the revival. “Better materials mean bikes today are lighter, while new propulsion systems, like electric assistance, have developed,” says Nielsen. These changes make it easier to get around hilly cities while also making cycling accessible to new sectors of the population, like senior citizens. What’s more, “one of our labs has shown that younger generations are also changing their habits,” says Wulfhorst. “They no longer use their bikes just to commute to work, but to do their shopping as well. The electric motor makes it easier to support extra weight.” As a result, sales of electric bicycles in France are growing by 15 per cent a year. And there is still plenty of innovation underway. The latest product to hit the market is Halfbike. Part scooter and part bicycle, it is pedal-powered but has no saddle. The rider steers by leaning. It’s perfect for younger athletic (and trendy) riders.

Another phenomenon is the growth of sharing, competing with the self-service bike networks that are already widely used, such as Bicing in Barcelona and BIXI in Montreal. One example is Spinlister, a peer-to-peer bike-rental app available in 60 different countries. The platform aims to revolutionise sharing in big cities – which won’t be easy, as some cities are more advanced than others.

Adapting the city

Why is bicycle use so much higher in cities like Copenhagen, Bern and Munich? The answer may have little to do with geography or weather. “Weather does play somewhat of a role,” says Wulfhorst. “But in Quebec and the Netherlands, people cycle in rain and snow all the time – as long as they’re properly dressed.”

For Isabelle Lesens, a municipal councillor in Paris’ 15th arrondissement, the real problem lies elsewhere: safety. “Cycling in cities is safer than in the countryside – but it can be scary.” So are our urban environments poorly adapted? Yes, she says. “Public officials will have to focus on this over the next 20 years. It’s not enough just to provide more self-service bicycles, even though they’re needed in cities like London and Paris, where it’s hard to store bicycles at home. If we want to encourage more people to cycle, we need to adapt the urban space to make it safer and more practical.”

“We need to create the right conditions to make cycling easy,”

says Wulfhorst. “The key is having an accessible urban space, complementary modes of transport and secure parking areas.” In other words, cycling needs to be more convenient. “The division between bike lanes and car lanes has to be clearer. The more people demand it, the more likely the authorities are to address it.”

This necessary urban development is a political issue that raises questions of cost – an argument that Lesens rejects. “Setting up a network of self-service bikes costs more than creating special lanes for non-motorised vehicles or building secure parking stations.” She says the rest will fall into place naturally as more people start using their own bikes instead of self-service models.

By Jean-Christophe Piot


 

Going with the flow

The fight against congestion is getting some new tools: mobile phones and complex algorithms. 

Gridlocked streets, shortage of parking spaces, pollution, road rage and, unfortunately, accidents. These are familiar problems to anyone living in cities, and they are set to get worse as more and more people flock to urban areas. The response of cities such as London and Stockholm has been to charge a fee to enter the central area. Others, including Copenhagen, are trying a different solution: using modern computing and communication technology to improve the flow of existing traffic.

The key tool for Copenhagen is the smartphone. In 2013, the city council commissioned a group of experts from the Technical University of Denmark (DTU) and various companies to look at the feasibility of monitoring traffic flow via a network of Wi-Fi “access points” across the city. The idea was to exploit the fact that most people on the move – be they motorists, cyclists, public-transport passengers or pedestrians – now carry a smartphone. Using signals that the phones continually emit, the system would calculate the person’s position and speed.

To test the idea, the researchers set up six access points on lamp posts along a busy stretch of H.C. Andersens Boulevard. By comparing data from the access points with signals from GPS units given to a number of cyclists and pedestrians, the experts were able to track individuals to within a metre of their true position. They were also able to convince lawyers at the town hall that the procedure wouldn’t violate privacy legislation, by stripping data of the numbers that identify individual phones.

According to DTU’s Per Høeg, these data could have many uses. One would be monitoring the density of cyclists at key junctions in order to advise individuals to change route or slow down when necessary, particularly at rush hour. Cyclists, he says, can be “very pushy”, causing some to fall close to passing cars, and they often ignore red lights. “Every year someone is killed,” he says.

In addition to monitoring parking spaces and turning street lamps on and off for pedestrians at night, perhaps the main benefit of the new data will be in managing traffic lights. Currently “green time” – the duration of a green traffic light – is controlled by a computer program that processes images from roadside cameras. But Høeg says the program can’t discern individual vehicles when the traffic gets too heavy. “At that point you need to set the green time manually.”

The need for green

Finding ways to make best use of green time is a key aim of many researchers in Europe and beyond. In Germany, a collaboration between universities, research institutes and industrial companies known as UR:BAN has developed technology to minimize the number of trucks that stop at red lights. Since trucks take disproportionately longer to start up again than the equivalent length of cars, “platoons” of trucks travelling not far behind one another are allowed, if possible, to travel through each junction as a single unit – thereby improving traffic flow while reducing pollution and noise.

The system uses roadside detectors to pick out trucks from among the vehicles approaching a set of traffic lights, and a computer program to work out whether to keep the lights green for an extra few seconds. The program models traffic building up behind the red lights to establish whether the extra green time will create a net benefit. Fritz Busch of the Technical University of Munich (TUM), one of the project partners, says that a trial involving a single test truck in Düsseldorf shows that the scheme is “technically feasible”, but he admits that it remains unproven in a “statistically significant way”. He adds that in future drivers should also receive advice about the speed needed to keep platoons as compact as possible. He points out, however, that the system will need to be standardised across cities and countries if truck manufacturers are to incorporate it into their vehicles.

Making the best use of green time is also the aim of researchers at Newcastle University, who are taking part in a European Union project known as Compass4D. The group has developed a device that tells drivers how fast they should travel to hit the next traffic lights on green and that allows them to change lights to green if necessary. The device is being trialled in a number of non-emergency ambulances in Newcastle and, if it improves traffic flow, could be fitted to trucks, buses and taxis as well.

Opening up the open road

A quite different way of optimising green time is being taken by Nikolas Geroliminis and colleagues at the École Polytechnique Fédérale in Lausanne (EPFL). The Swiss group is analysing entire road networks rather than specific intersections. Instead of modelling the position and speed of individual vehicles, which requires huge amounts of data, they monitor the number and average speed of vehicles across the network. “We try to operate traffic in cities in a holistic way,” he says.

The researchers have developed an algorithm that coordinates a network’s traffic lights so as to maximise the total distance travelled by vehicles in the network every minute. Geroliminis explains that this “flow” increases as a city fills up, but that at a certain point average speed slumps to such an extent that the flow starts to drop. Eventually, the network becomes gridlocked and flow ceases. “We want traffic levels to be neither too low nor too high,” he says.

The group has already simulated traffic flow in San Francisco and Barcelona, finding that its algorithm should reduce congestion by more than 20 per cent. Now it is moving into the real world, developing “smart traffic lights” that will be controlled by its algorithm during tests planned for Geneva in 2017. While computer simulations are a powerful tool, says Geroliminis, “you can’t always simulate individual people and traffic accurately”. It is not just in city centres that modern technology is being used to improve traffic flow. Currently a long stretch of motorway running from Rotterdam, via Frankfurt, to Vienna is being fitted with Wi-Fi access points to enable drivers and traffic control centres to communicate with one another. Drivers will be warned about upcoming dangers such as slow-moving road works, while controllers will be automatically informed of vehicles’ positions and speed. The project got underway this year, and, according to Busch, could be expanded to include all German motorways by the end of 2018.

Improving the information that drivers receive is also one of the aims of the UR:BAN initiative. Researchers are developing a windscreen-integrated display that allows drivers to keep their eyes on the road, as well as “active gas pedals” that become less responsive when drivers need to be alerted. They are also simulating drivers’ behaviour so that cars can provide more meaningful warnings, and are optimising emergency braking and other automatic interventions to strike the right balance between driver autonomy and safety.

As well as improving safety, these technologies should contribute to the broader aim of improving traffic management. But, as experience in Copenhagen shows, trying to get traffic flowing more smoothly is easier in theory than in practice. Problems with power supply cut the number of access points that could be used for the smartphone trials from a planned 20 to six, and those that remained happened to be on lamp posts next to trees whose leaves reflected wireless signals differently when wet and dry. A shorter than expected sampling distance – 200 meters instead of 1 kilometer – also made it difficult to track fast cars. “We had lots of little nitty-gritty problems that we had to overcome,” says Høeg.

Such teething problems aside, he believes that modern technology is essential in providing relatively cheap and efficient ways of making cities safer and more environmentally friendly. Busch also thinks that in the long run automated traffic is inevitable, particularly if city planners want to avoid building ever more roads.

“Smart systems are definitely the future of traffic.”

►How do people travel and where do they go?

Models that simulate individual travel behaviour can help answer these questions to help design better cities. These so-called activity-based models predict which activities are conducted when, where and with what mode of transport. Diverse parameters that influence an individual’s travel decisions are taken into account, such as number of children or choice of work and workplace. This high level of precision allows for forecasts of traffic’s impact on air pollution. One such model, Albatross, was developed by Harry Timmermans at the Eindhoven University of Technology under commission from the Dutch Ministry of Transport. According to Mobility and Traffic Professor Timmermans, this research is crucial, especially in the Netherlands, where “transportation and environmental planning are prominent due to a lack of urban space”.

By Edwin Cartlidge

Bike highway

Photo: KEYSTONE/DPA/Bernd Thissen

 

 

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